NCSE Evolution Education Update for 2009/04/03
(by NCSE Deputy Director Glenn Branch)
Dear Friends of NCSE, Plenty of news in Texas again: the Texas state board of education voted to adopt a flawed set of state science standards, and Chris Comer's suit against the Texas Education Agency was dismissed. In Florida, the Florida Academy of Sciences denounced the antievolution bill still in the state senate. A few seats remain aboard NCSE's next excursion to the Grand Canyon. And the Evolution Education Update is going to be transferred to Google Groups in the near future.
A SETBACK FOR SCIENCE EDUCATION IN TEXAS At its March 25-27, 2009, meeting, the Texas state board of education voted to adopt a flawed set of state science standards, which will dictate what is taught in science classes in elementary and secondary schools, as well as provide the material for state tests and textbooks, for the next decade. Although creationists on the board were unsuccessful in inserting the controversial "strengths and weaknesses" language from the old set of standards, they proposed a flurry of synonyms -- such as "sufficiency or insufficiency" and "supportive and not supportive" -- and eventually prevailed with a requirement that students examine "all sides of scientific evidence." Additionally, the board voted to add or amend various standards in a way that encourages the presentation of creationist claims about the complexity of the cell, the completeness of the fossil record, and the age of the universe. The proceedings were confusing and contentious, and it is understandable that journalists differed in their initial assessments of the significance of the vote: for example, the Dallas Morning News (March 28, 2009) headlined its article as "Conservatives lose another battle over evolution," while the Wall Street Journal (March 27, 2009) headlined its article as "Texas Opens Classroom Door for Evolution Doubts," and the Austin-American-Statesman (March 28, 2009) played it safe with "State education board approves science standards." As the dust settled, though, NCSE's executive director Eugenie C. Scott -- who was invited to testify before the board at its meeting -- commented, in a March 30, 2009, press release, "The final vote was a triumph of ideology and politics over science." "The board majority chose to satisfy creationist constituents and ignore the expertise of highly qualified Texas scientists and scientists across the country," Scott added. Among the organizations calling upon the board to adopt the standards as originally drafted by a panel of Texas scientists and educators were the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the National Association of Geoscience Teachers, the Paleontological Society, the National Association of Biology Teachers, and the Texas Association of Biology Teachers, as well as fifty-four scientific and education societies that endorsed a statement circulated by NCSE. The board's chair, avowed creationist Don McLeroy, responded by crying (video is available on NCSE's YouTube channel), during the meeting, "Somebody's got to stand up to experts!" Writing in Salon (March 29, 2009), Gordy Slack -- the author of The Battle Over the Meaning of Everything: Evolution, Intelligent Design, and a School Board in Dover, PA (Jossey-Bass 2007) -- explained that after Kitzmiller v. Dover, "advocates of teaching neo-creationism have been forced to seek other ways into public science classrooms. Enter the 'strengths and weaknesses' strategy." After the creationist faction on the board failed to reinsert the "strengths and weaknesses" language, NCSE's executive director Eugenie C. Scott commented, "they had a fallback position, which was to continue amending the standards to achieve through the back door what they couldn't achieve upfront." Slack added, "Each of the amendments singles out an old creationist argument, strips it of its overtly ideological language, and requires teachers and textbook publishers to adopt it." Rachel Courtland, a blogger for New Scientist (March 31, 2009), examined a case in point: the deletion of a reference in the standards to the age of the universe ("about 14 billion years ago"). As revised, the standards require students to learn "current theories of the evolution of the universe including estimates for the age of the universe," with the actual age absent. "Is the new standard an invitation for young-Earth proponents to teach students that the Earth and the universe beyond it is just a few thousand years old?" asked Courtland, adding, "Some teachers could conceivably see it as an opening. According to a 2008 study ["Evolution and Creationism in America's Classrooms: A National Portrait" from PLoS Biology 2008; 6 (5)], 16% of US science teachers believe humans were created by God in the last 10,000 years." Texas groups defending the integrity of science education were dismayed at the result. Kathy Miller, the president of the Texas Freedom Network, Kathy Miller, said in a March 27, 2009, statement, "The word 'weaknesses' no longer appears in the science standards. But the document still has plenty of potential footholds for creationist attacks on evolution to make their way into Texas classrooms. Through a series of contradictory and convoluted amendments, the board crafted a road map that creationists will use to pressure publishers into putting phony arguments attacking established science into textbooks." There is a historical precedent in the textbook adoption process from 2003, when creationists selectively applied the "strengths and weaknesses" language to try to dilute the treatment of evolution in the textbooks under consideration. On his blog for the Houston Chronicle (March 27, 2009), Steven Schafersman of Texas Citizens for Science optimistically commented, "I think we can work around the few flawed standards," but lamented, "But the point is that there shouldn't be ANY flawed standards. The science standards as submitted by the science writing teams were excellent and flaw-free. All the flaws were added by politically unscrupulous SBOE members with an extreme right-wing religious agenda to support Creationism." Having attended (and blogged from) all three days of the meeting and observed the confusion and contention among the members of the board, he ruefully added, "this is not the way to develop educational policy in one of the most wealthy and powerful states in the most wealthy and powerful country in the world in the 21st century." Even The New York Times (March 30, 2009) took notice of the plight of science education in Texas, editorially commenting, "This was not a straightforward battle over whether to include creationism or its close cousin, intelligent design, in the science curriculum. Rather, this was a struggle to insert into the state science standards various phrases and code words that may seem innocuous or meaningless at first glance but could open the door to doubts about evolution. ... At the end of a tense, confusing three-day meeting, Darwin's critics claimed that this and other compromise language amounted to a huge victory that would still allow their critiques into textbooks and classrooms. One can only hope that teachers in Texas will use common sense and teach evolution as scientists understand it." The Austin American-Statesman (April 1, 2009) editorially complained, "Chairman Don McLeroy, Dunbar and others have turned the education board into a national joke. But when it comes to teaching Texas children, what they have done is not funny. Last week's discussion about shaping the teaching of science to allow doubts about evolution was surreal. Biology texts now must include 'all sides' of scientific theories ... The underlying point is that a board majority wants creationism to be part of the scientific discussion. And they got enough of a foot in the door with their language about teaching 'all sides' of scientific theories that publishers will have to include criticism of evolution if they want to sell science textbooks to Texas schools." Detailed, candid, and often uninhibited running commentary on the proceedings is available on a number of blogs: Texas Citizens for Science's Steven Schafersman was blogging and posting photographs on the Houston Chronicle's Evo.Sphere blog, the Texas Freedom Network was blogging on its TFN Insider blog, and NCSE's Joshua Rosenau was blogging on his personal blog, Thoughts from Kansas (hosted by ScienceBlogs). For those wanting to get their information from the horse's mouth, minutes and audio recordings of the board meeting will be available on the Texas Education Agency's website as well as on Tony Whitson's Curricublog. NCSE's previous reports on events in Texas are available on-line, and of course NCSE will continue to monitor the situation as well as to assist those defending the teaching of evolution in the Lone Star State. For the story in the Dallas Morning News, visit: http://www.dallasnews.com/sharedcontent/dws/news/texassouthwest/stories/DN-evolution_28tex.ART.State.Edition1.4a87415.html For the story in the Wall Street Journal, visit: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB123819751472561761.html For the story in the Austin American-Statesman, visit: http://www.statesman.com/news/content/news/stories/local/03/28/0328sboe.html For NCSE's press release, visit: http://ncseweb.org/news/2009/03/science-setback-texas-schools-004708 For NCSE's story about the societies supporting the standards, visit: http://ncseweb.org/news/2009/03/texas-needs-to-get-it-right-004695 For NCSE's YouTube channel, visit: http://www.youtube.com/user/NatCen4ScienceEd For Gordy Slack's column in Salon, visit: http://www.salon.com/env/feature/2009/03/28/texas_evolution_case/ For the New Scientist blog post, visit: http://www.newscientist.com/blogs/shortsharpscience/2009/03/universes-age-erased-from-texa.html For "Evolution and Creationism in America's Classrooms: A National Portrait," visit: http://dx.doi.org/10.1371/journal.pbio.0060124 For TFN's statement, visit: http://www.tfn.org/site/News2?page=NewsArticle&id=5745 For Steven Schafersman's comments, visit: http://www.chron.com/commons/readerblogs/evosphere.html For the editorial in The New York Times, visit: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/03/31/opinion/31tue3.html For the editorial in the Austin American-Statesman, visit: http://www.statesman.com/opinion/content/editorial/stories/04/01/0401sboe_edit.html For the blog coverage of the hearings, visit: http://www.chron.com/commons/readerblogs/evosphere.html http://tfnblog.wordpress.com/ http://www.scienceblogs.com/tfk/ For the minutes and records from the TEA, visit: http://ritter.tea.state.tx.us/sboe/minutes_archived.html http://ritter.tea.state.tx.us/sboe/audio_archived.html http://curricublog.wordpress.com/ And for NCSE's previous coverage of events in Texas, visit: http://ncseweb.org/news/texas COMER CASE DISMISSED In a March 31, 2009, decision, Chris Comer's lawsuit against the Texas Education Agency, challenging the agency's policy of requiring neutrality about evolution and creationism, was dismissed. The Austin American-Statesman (April 1, 2009) reported, "The state's attorneys argued in court filings that the agency is allowed to bar its employees from giving the appearance that the agency is taking positions on issues that the State Board of Education must decide, such as the content of the science curriculum." The newspaper quoted Texas Education Commissioner Robert Scott as saying, "We are sorry that this situation resulted in a lawsuit but we were confident we would prevail," and John Oberdorfer, one of Comer's lawyers, as saying of the dismissal, "We'll look at it and decide what we'll do next." Comer, the former director of science at the Texas Education Agency, was forced to resign in November 2007 after she forwarded a note announcing a talk by Barbara Forrest in Austin. As NCSE's Glenn Branch -- who sent the offending e-mail -- explained in a post at the Beacon Broadside blog (December 19, 2007), "Less than two hours after sending the e-mail, she was called on the carpet and instructed to send a disclaimer. And then she was forced to resign. Although a memorandum recommending her dismissal referred to various instances of alleged 'misconduct and insubordination' on her part, it was clear what her real offense was: 'the TEA requires, as agency policy, neutrality when talking about evolution and creationism.'" The TEA was widely criticized in editorials and by scientific and educational societies. In June 2008, Comer filed suit in federal court in the Western District of Texas, arguing, "the Agency's firing of its Director of Science for not remaining 'neutral' on the subject violates the Establishment Clause, because it employs the symbolic and financial support of the State of Texas to achieve a religious purpose, and so has the purpose or effect of endorsing religion. By professing 'neutrality,' the Agency credits creationism as a valid scientific theory. Finally, the Agency fired Director Comer without according her due process as required by the 14th Amendment -- a protection especially important here because Director Comer was fired for contravening an unconstitutional policy." The judge ruled, however, that the TEA's neutrality policy is not a violation of the Establishment Clause. (Additional legal documentation for this case is archived on NCSE's website.) Although Comer's lawsuit was dismissed, her plight (discussed in a brief video commissioned by NCSE) is still a disquieting indication of the condition of science education in Texas. Shortly after her forced resignation was in the headlines, the Houston Chronicle (December 4, 2007) editorially commented, "With a State Board of Education review of the science portion of the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills scheduled early next year, Comer's ouster could portend a renewed effort to establish creationism and intelligent design as science class fare." In light of the recent adoption of a set of state science standards that encourages the presentation of creationist arguments, the TEA's "neutrality when talking about evolution and creationism" is likely to be under scrutiny again. For the story in the Austin American-Statesman, visit: http://www.statesman.com/news/content/news/stories/local/04/01/0401comer.html For Glenn Branch's post on Beacon Broadside, visit: http://www.beaconbroadside.com/broadside/2007/12/muzzling-dissen.html For a sampling of the criticism leveled at the TEA, visit: http://ncseweb.org/news/2007/12/latest-comer-controversy-001154 For Comer's lawsuit (PDF), visit: http://ncseweb.org/webfm_send/750 For the dismissal of the case (PDF), visit: http://ncseweb.org/webfm_send/798 For NCSE's archives of documents in Comer v. Scott, visit: http://ncseweb.org/creationism/legal/chris-comer-docs For the video about Comer's plight, visit: http://ncseweb.org/multimedia/chris-comer-expelled-real For the Houston Chronicle's editorial, visit: http://www.chron.com/CDA/archives/archive.mpl?id=2007_4472569 And for NCSE's previous coverage of events in Texas, visit: http://ncseweb.org/news/texas CRITICISM FOR FLORIDA'S ANTIEVOLUTION BILL Florida's Senate Bill 2396, which would, if enacted, amend a section of Florida law to require "[a] thorough presentation and critical analysis of the scientific theory of evolution," was in the headlines after the Florida Academy of Sciences denounced it. In its March 20, 2009, statement, the academy described SB 2396 as "a deliberate attempt to undermine the adopted science standards," adding, "SB 2396, in effect, leaves the door open for the introduction in the public school curriculum of nonscientific and covertly religious doctrines. The proposed bill would be damaging to the quality of science education of Florida's children and the scientific literacy of our citizens. It would further undermine the reputation of our state and adversely affect our economic future as we try to attract new high-tech and biomedical jobs to Florida." David Karlen, a Tampa biologist and a member of the Florida Academy of Sciences, told the Tampa Tribune (March 28, 2009), "'Critical analysis' is the latest buzzword in the creationist movement to sneak intelligent design or creationism into the curriculum," and noted that it is typically only evolution for which "critical analysis" is applied. Observing that the bill has yet to receive a hearing in committee -- the bill was referred to the Education Pre-K-12 and the Education Pre-K-12 Appropriations committees in the Senate -- or a counterpart in the Florida House of Representatives, the Tribune reported that the bill "apparently is going nowhere this year," especially because the legislature is presently busy with budgetary issues. May 1, 2009, is the last day of the current legislative session. For the academy's statement (PDF), visit: http://www.flascience.org/fas_statement.pdf For the story in the Tampa Tribune, visit: http://www2.tbo.com/content/2009/mar/28/na-anti-evolution-bill-still-a-fruitless-exercise/ And for NCSE's previous coverage of events in Florida, visit: http://ncseweb.org/news/florida VISIT THE GRAND CANYON WITH SCOTT AND GISH! A few seats remain aboard NCSE's next excursion to the Grand Canyon -- as featured in The New York Times (October 6, 2005). From July 3 to 10, 2009, NCSE will again explore the wonders of creation and evolution on a Grand Canyon river run conducted by NCSE's Genie Scott and Alan ("Gish") Gishlick. Call or write now: seats are limited. Because this is an NCSE trip, we offer more than just the typically grand float down the Canyon, the spectacular scenery, fascinating natural history, brilliant night skies, exciting rapids, delicious meals, and good company. It is, in fact, a unique "two-model" raft trip, on which we provide both the creationist view of the Grand Canyon and the evolutionist view -- and let you make up your own mind. The cost is $2480; a deposit of $500 will hold your spot. For information on the excursion, visit: http://ncseweb.org/about/excursions/gcfaq For NCSE's story about the article in The New York Times, visit: http://ncseweb.org/news/2005/10/seeing-creation-evolution-grand-canyon-00771 NOTICE AND REMINDER In the near future, the Evolution Education Update is going to be transferred to Google Groups. You'll continue to receive news from NCSE every week, but it will be originating from firstname.lastname@example.org. You'll also have the option of reading messages and managing your subscription on the web, rather than by e-mail. With any luck, you won't have to do anything for the transfer to take place; you will receive a notification by e-mail when you have been added to the new list. We think that the transfer will be helpful in a number of ways, and we're working to make it as seamless as possible! In the meantime, if you wish to unsubscribe to these evolution education updates, please send: unsubscribe ncse-news email@example.com in the body of an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org. If you wish to subscribe, please send: subscribe ncse-news email@example.com again in the body of an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org. Thanks for reading! And as always, be sure to consult NCSE's web site: http://ncseweb.org where you can always find the latest news on evolution education and threats to it. Sincerely, Glenn Branch Deputy Director National Center for Science Education, Inc. 420 40th Street, Suite 2 Oakland, CA 94609-2509 510-601-7203 x310 fax: 510-601-7204 800-290-6006 email@example.com http://ncseweb.org Not in Our Classrooms: Why Intelligent Design Is Wrong for Our Schools http://ncseweb.org/nioc Eugenie C. Scott's Evolution vs. Creationism http://ncseweb.org/evc NCSE's work is supported by its members. Join today! http://ncseweb.org/membership